Opinion
WHERE IC PROFESSIONALS COME TO TALK

PUT SOME DRAMA INTO YOUR INTERNAL COMMS

Telling a good story remains a core skill for internal communicators. Anthony Madigan of Write the Talk reflects on what TV scriptwriters can teach us about hooking an audience.

19th September 2018

Unless your messaging framework is mapped out over time, developing and building, it’s lifeless. Would you keep watching a TV series where the characters said the same things over and over again?

ANTHONY MADIGAN, WRITE THE TALK


The head of a sizeable internal comms team once told me, “I have a great team, but they’re not writers.” Back then, it felt like a surprising skill gap. Now, as IC develops a more strategic role, there’s talk of whether writing is a core requirement for the modern comms function.

If we want to know whether internal comms needs great writers, we need to look at what writing actually means. For that, let’s look outside business to the world of TV drama.

A TV show relies on many disciplines: direction, production, casting – the list goes on. But think of any long-running series – Mad Men,Grey’s AnatomyDoctor WhoOrange Is the New Black– and there’s one job that’s head and shoulders above the rest: the writer. The principal writers behind these shows are known as showrunners. And the point here is that they don’t just write.

In TV, writing is so much more than crafting the words we hear. Writers have the big ideas, shape the storylines to maintain our interest over long periods of time, and find the tone and voices that will engage us. Writers are the heart and soul behind what we see, episode after episode.

Creative freedom? Big budgets? Talented performers? If only we had them, I hear you say. But bringing the writer’s touch to the job you do every day isn’t the stuff of dreams. Every organisation has big stories to shape, and IC should be right there in the middle of things, turning strategy into a steadily unfolding narrative and putting ideas in front of audiences. Every IC team needs the skills and perspectives of writers to make that happen.

Take messaging frameworks. It’s good to have a list of ideas that you want people to buy into. But unless they’re mapped out over time, developing and building to take your audience with them, they’re lifeless. Would you keep watching a TV series where the characters said the same things over and over again? No, me neither.

And then there’s tone. Midsomer Murdersand Veraare both crime dramas, but that’s where the similarities stop: one is day to the other’s night. An organisation’s culture should be as distinctive and important as a show’s tone, and what people read and hear has a big influence over how they feel about the organisation they work for. 

Managing and using tone, in day-to-day comms as well as leadership communications, is a great writerly skill. Here’s one tip you can use today. The first draft for any communication should be what you would say in person to someone in your audience. It’s much more like scriptwriting than you might think. Write to speak and you won’t go too far wrong. It’s not a coincidence that many professional writers read aloud as part of their writing process. 

Less obvious is the influence showrunners have as editors. Knowing when to stop, where to trim, what to encourage and when to try something new are what makes editing the close cousin of writing. There’s no more room in business for wasted words or tone-deaf language than there is in prime-time drama. They make every word count, and so should you.

Ask a colleague to edit your content ruthlessly, throwing out any words or phrases that don’t earn their place (and they Must. Not. Add. Anything. New). The greatest writers have editors; we all need them.

Where does great grammar and punctuation fit into all this? Here’s my personal view. Skilled writers know how language works, what the rules are and when to break them. They also know their audience. The most important aspect of language is the effect it has, not how well it would have scored in an end-of-term test. Do what works!

Every IC team is competing for the attention of its audience, just like the big dramas are. Why not use all the skills and techniques of the great TV writers to keep your audience ratings high?

 

QUICK TIPS

1 Shape your big messages so they develop over time. Your story has to go somewhere if you want to keep your audience’s attention.

2 Your people are characters in your organisation’s story. Let their personalities shine through in your comms – it helps to build trust and engagement.

3 Every word has to earn its place, so choose wisely and imaginatively.


Closet writer Anthony Madigan is also MD and founder of Write the Talk (writethetalk.com), the big-story-shaping agency based in Leicester and Hong Kong. @writethetalk

Unless your messaging framework is mapped out over time, developing and building, it’s lifeless. Would you keep watching a TV series where the characters said the same things over and over again?

ANTHONY MADIGAN, WRITE THE TALK

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